Hamad Buamim had reason to be pleased with himself in London last week.
Amid the bustle of the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) the director general of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce had just pulled off a coup by winning the right to stage the next forum of the “Islamic Davos” in Dubai.
It is quite an achievement.
Next November, the eyes of the Islamic world will be on Dubai as thousands of Muslim leaders and business people gather in the emirate.
It will be a huge boost for Dubai's ambitions to be the capital of the global Islamic economy, on a three-year schedule announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
It is also a big personal achievement for Mr Buamim, who is regarded as one of the stars of the Dubai establishment, and the culmination of many months’ work.
“We’ve been having a dialogue with the WIEF for the past six months, ever since His Highness announced the initiative. It’s the tenth forum, and I think they wanted to celebrate that occasion in Kuala Lumpur, where it began. They [the WIEF organisers] were really considering us for the 11th, so we had to convince them Dubai was the best place to have it next year, for the greater good of the global Islamic economy,” he says.
The forum is a big event. Some 2,500 delegates, ranging from presidents and prime ministers, top executives and all-round movers and shakers, were in the East End of London last week, the first time the event has been held outside the Islamic world.
“We argued that bringing it to Dubai would win them an even bigger audience. We told them of our ambitions, and of course they were aware of Sheikh Mohammed’s initiative. Eventually we were able to convince them that Dubai was the place,” he says.
The clinching arguments, he says, were Dubai’s central location as a business hub, with its proximity to Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and its ability to put on an event of this size and stature.
“We have an excellent track record of delivering these kind of events, and the best facilities in the Middle East,” says Mr Buamim.
Backed by the full weight of the emirate’s Government, he was also able to persuade WIEF’s decision makers that Dubai could broaden the appeal of the event.
It was noticeable in London last week that two of the biggest players in the Islamic world – Saudi Arabia and Iran – were distinctly under-represented at the forum. Mr Buamim believes that would be different in Dubai.
“I don’t believe it was a political decision by either of them. I just think there is room for this event to grow. Our aim is to bring it to the whole Islamic world,” he says.
Iran, perhaps affected by United States-led economic sanctions, was absent in any official capacity in London, but Mr Buamim believes that will change. “Of course they will be invited to Dubai next year. They are our friends, and we have a long history with them. And I am very optimistic with political developments in the Arabian Gulf,” he says.
Staging the WIEF will put Dubai right up there with Kuala Lumpur and London as a global Islamic financial centre, but Mr Buamim believes the emirate’s appeal is broader than just sukuk and other Sharia-compliant financial engineering.
“It’s not just about finance, but also other crucial aspects of the Islamic economy, like food, tourism, leisure, education, standardisation and certification. We have learnt a lot from the Malaysians, who began the whole thing, but we believe we can make it more international.”
Dubai will also seek the attendance of American Muslims, who have so far been slow to appreciate the opportunities of the global Islamic economy, estimated by Dubai to be worth some US$8 trillion.
“The awareness and knowledge is not there yet in the USA, but there is no reason it should not happen. Perhaps there is room for another Islamic hub, apart from Malaysia, Dubai and London,” he says.
Mr Buamim thinks there is plenty of potential for expanding the event beyond the traditional Muslim world.
“We think we can take it to the next level by addressing the issue of the globalisation of the Islamic economy, especially in terms of addressing non-Muslims in terms of participation. It is in everybody’s interests that this happens.”
The event will probably be centred on Dubai's World Trade Centre, but could expand beyond that, given the emirate's rapidly growing expertise in staging such events. It could even be seen as a practice run for the Expo 2020 event, if Dubai wins the right later this month to stage the world's most prestigious business exhibition in seven years' time.
Mr Buamim and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce have also been closely involved in the negotiations and lobbying over Expo.
“There is a great awareness of the importance of this. Whether we win or not, it has done us good. And who knows, even if we don’t win [the right to stage Expo], maybe we will put on our own show for the rest of the world anyway.”